Dr. Nirit Bernhard’s (BSC 1993 UC) lifelong passion for medicine and, specifically, paediatrics, was inspired by early experiences with her brother who has various medical ailments. Since that time she has built a reputation as an empathetic and widely-respected doctor who focuses on helping all children reach their full potential, regardless of medical barriers. After graduating from UC, Dr. Bernhard received a master’s degree in Neurobiology at the U of T and then her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario in 2003. She has held numerous leadership roles throughout her career and currently serves as a general paediatrician and Assistant Professor with the Department of Paediatrics in the U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. She also serves as the Medical Director of the Down Syndrome Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. In all of her roles, Dr. Bernhard is recognized for looking beyond the limitations of illnesses and focusing instead on each patient’s abilities, encouraging them to live full and happy lives. Dr. Bernhard is also one of the recipients of the University College Alumni of Influence for 2022

STAO Blog had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Nirit Bernhard to discuss her career path throughout her academic studies, her interest in science and the impact of some of her teachers.

What aspects of science and technology have helped to influence you in pursuing this career path – thinking about your elementary, high school and post-secondary experiences?

From a young age, my inquisitive nature was evident, having asked numerous questions during my schooling and my fascination with nature and biology. In particular, I had a keen interest in understanding the senses and the human body, which became a driving force for my educational journey. My early love for biology not only shaped my academic path, but also assisted me in excelling in other postsecondary courses. I would like to express deep gratitude to my early science teachers who fostered an environment where questions without immediate answers were encouraged. However, as I progressed through education, I noticed a decline in opportunities to ask questions. Even in graduate school, I had to rekindle my ability to ask questions. In reflecting upon my experiences, I feel that the educational landscape should place an emphasis on the importance of nurturing curiosity in young children and that children should continuously be encouraged to ask questions and make observations, which is a fundamental aspect of the scientific process. Science is not just about finding answers, but also about the journey of asking questions, designing experiments, and interpreting results. Curiosity is an inherent trait in children and a vital asset in the scientific community, as it fosters the ability to ask questions without knowing the answers, and to effectively handle information obtained throughout the process.

What is your job title? What career did you train for? Why did you pursue this career path? What does this job entail?

My journey into the field of medicine and paediatrics has been marked by a deep commitment to understanding and caring for children, especially those with special needs and developmental differences. Following my four years of medical school, I further specialized in clinical general paediatrics and found my niche in working with young patients who face unique challenges. My professional path led me to an academic hospital closely affiliated with a university, where I embarked on a journey of intensive research and medical education. I have also taken on the roles of a medical educator and course instructor, teaching not only medical students but also undergraduate and post-graduate students. A distinctive aspect of my educational role is the design and delivery of a course known as the ‘Portfolio’. This course encourages medical students to be reflective, compassionate, and advocates for their patients, emphasizing the humanistic aspects of healthcare. Having scientific knowledge is an essential part of my profession, my understanding the needs and challenges of patients is equally vital, which is a quality that cannot be replaced by such things as online searches. My role is multifaceted as a scientist, a doctor, and a teacher, and I aim to nurture the intuitive abilities of learners while providing guidance and support in order to foster a new generation of medical practitioners who not only diagnose, but also consider the broader factors of their impact on patient care.

What advice would you give to students in all grade levels on how to pursue their interests in working in a similar field to the one you are in? (For example: What courses should they take? What kind of volunteer work should they do?)

My career path is characterized by determination and adaptability. After completing my undergraduate studies, I applied to a variety of different programs, including teacher’s college and graduate school, as an initial attempt to gain admission to medical school. When the latter didn’t materialize on my first try, I opted for a master’s program instead of teacher’s college. Throughout this journey, I remained dedicated to teaching, often at the bedside, but also continued to have aspirations to impart knowledge to future doctors, recognizing the unique opportunities available in academic and community hospitals. I would like to emphaize the importance of perseverance when exploring academic and career pathways as mine was far from linear, which is something that permeates the landscape presently and speaks to the value of gaining knowledge throughout one’s schooling of all available pathways. In a world where many students aspire to be social media celebrities, I encourage students to acknowledge that they may have more than one job or career in their lifetime and that the emphasis is about a journey rather than a race. Once again I’d like to highlight the importance of asking questions when meeting new people, which is a practice that can open doors and provide valuable insights. 

Are there any common misconceptions about your job/career path?

It’s a common misconception that those in paediatrics might engage in frivolous or unserious activities, but the reality is quite the opposite. The field demands dedication and a serious approach to patient care. Another misconception revolves around the belief that you have to be exceptionally intelligent to succeed in medicine, however, success in medicine primarily hinges on hard work and effort. I believe that diligent, persistent work is the most significant predictor of success in the field. Furthermore, I would like to highlight the role of personal and life experiences in shaping one’s career choices, particularly in the medical field. These experiences have a profound impact on an individual’s decision to pursue a career in medicine, which reinforces the notion that one’s journey is shaped by a unique combination of influences. 

If there was one take-home point, what would it be?

I would like to emphasize the importance of self-belief, to urge individuals to recognize that they are often more capable than they perceive themselves to be, while still maintaining humility. Education is not an easy journey, but it’s essential to pursue one’s dreams and passions. In their pursuit, I encourage young people not to allow others to influence them away from their aspirations. There is significance of representation, as young people should see themselves reflected in various career paths. A powerful ‘Winnie The Pooh’ quote comes to mind: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” I do acknowledge that some individuals need more encouragement, especially those who lack parents with postsecondary experience. I always advocate to believe in oneself and caution against anyone pursuing a career solely for the title or an ‘easy path’. My most rewarding aspect of my work is in the knowledge that I can make a difference and make life a bit better for those who have faced significant struggles and challenges.